New GWAS Study: Can Tendency For Vegetarianism Be Genetic?

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New GWAS Study: Can Tendency For Vegetarianism Be Genetic?

Date of Content: October 14, 2023
Written by: Avanthika Nityanand
Reviewed by: Maarit Tiirikainen, PhD



For millennia, people have chosen not to consume animal flesh for various reasons ranging from religious, ethical, and environmental motivations to health concerns. Some Eastern religious practices like Hinduism and Buddhism often advise against eating meat. Historically, in ancient Greece, followers of figures like Pythagoras and the Orphic tradition had embraced vegetarianism as early as the 6th century BC. During the Renaissance and Enlightenment eras, Europe saw numerous notable individuals adopting vegetarianism. The 19th century saw the establishment of vegetarian societies in both Europe and America.

Recent scientific investigations have demonstrated the health advantages of a vegetarian diet. Such benefits include a reduced risk of ailments such as metabolic syndrome, obesity, lipid disorders, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and certain types of cancer. Conversely, some studies suggest potential drawbacks of a vegetarian diet, such as the risk of nutritional deficiencies leading to conditions like anemia, dental erosion, decreased bone density, and certain psychological disorders.


Vegetarianism in the World

Despite the growing appeal of vegetarianism, most of the global population still consumes meat. For instance, only about 5% of Americans consider themselves to be vegetarians, according to a 2018 Gallup poll. Similarly, 4% of individuals in the U.K. consider themselves vegans. The numbers are even smaller for people in Austria (3%), Sweden (2%), and Russia (1%). Interestingly, the actual number of strict vegetarians might be even lower. However, past studies have also observed that people who self-identify as vegetarians admit to occasionally eating fish, poultry, or even red meat. 

This inconsistency indicates that while some might aspire to conduct a vegetarian lifestyle, various environmental or biological factors might prevent full adherence. This leads to the intriguing question of whether all of us are or are not biologically equipped to sustain a strictly vegetarian diet in the long term.

Strengthening the argument for a biological predisposition towards food preferences, extensive research suggests a genetic influence on dietary choices. This includes the propensity for meat or vegetable consumption and inclinations towards “healthy” or “unhealthy” eating habits. Such discoveries hint that one’s genetic makeup may partially determine individual dietary preferences or requirements.

Study Summary

Scientific research consistently highlights the inheritability of dietary inclinations. Historically, vegetarianism has existed across different cultures for thousands of years. However, the global population of vegetarians remains relatively small, and the genetic influence on opting for a vegetarian lifestyle remains a mystery. The decision to pursue particular dietary patterns among an ample supply of various food items is a complex balance between the physiological responses to food, how these foods are metabolized, and the perception of taste, all of which have a robust genetic component. In their research, the authors conducted a genome-wide association study (GWAS) to pinpoint loci correlating with strict vegetarianism among participants from the UK Biobank. 

LifeDNA Link: <What Is GWAS?>

In their comparison of 5,324 committed vegetarians to a larger control group of 329,455 individuals, they discovered a specific SNP on chromosome 18 with a strong association with vegetarianism (rs72884519). Additionally, 201 other variants showed a suggestive level of significance. 

Four genes were linked with this SNP, namely TMEM241, RIOK3, NPC1, and RMC1. Researchers also pinpointed 34 other genes potentially influencing vegetarianism. Of these, three – RIOK3, RMC1, and NPC1 – stood out based on gene-level analysis from the GWAS. Intriguingly, some of these genes, such as TMEM241, NPC1, and RMC1, are pivotal in lipid metabolism and brain processes. It suggests that variances in lipid metabolism, coupled with their brain-related impacts, might be the foundation for one’s appeal and capability to thrive on a vegetarian diet. The findings emphasize the genetic underpinnings of choosing vegetarianism and set the stage for subsequent investigations to decode the physiological mechanisms integral to vegetarianism.

Read about the study in more detail here.

Past GWAS on Tendency To Choose Vegetarianism

A 2020 GWAS on 367,198 participants from the UK Biobank discovered a suggestive locus, rs10189138, close to the vaccinia-related kinase 2 (VRK2) gene, significantly associated with vegetarianism. 

Research has shown associations between genetic variants in the VRK2 gene and certain neurological disorders. For instance, variations in the VRK2 gene have been linked to susceptibility to schizophrenia and other psychiatric disorders in some studies. Moreover, the VRK2 protein has been implicated in interacting with proteins that are part of cell signaling pathways, which might influence various physiological processes.

Further analysis revealed that the rs10189138 “T” allele was notably linked to increased height. Additionally, when examining the genetic predictions of vegetarianism against 855 other traits, they found significant genetic correlations between vegetarianism, fluid intelligence, and the age at which menstruation starts. However, for these findings to be conclusive, they emphasized the need for additional research on a separate cohort to verify the GWAS results.


  • Vegetarianism has deep roots, from ancient Greece to modern health practices.
  • Despite its appeal, most globally still consume meat; e.g., only 3-4% in the US are vegetarians.
  • Genetic research suggests some individuals might be predisposed to vegetarianism.
  • Using GWAS on UK Biobank participants, researchers identified potential genes linked with vegetarianism, such as TMEM241, RIOK3, and NPC1.
  • A 2020 study identified the VRK2 gene’s connection with vegetarianism and additional associated genetic correlations with traits like fluid intelligence.



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*Understanding your genetics can offer valuable insights into your well-being, but it is not deterministic. Your traits can be influenced by the complex interplay involving nature, lifestyle, family history, and others.

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